“She had the perfect physique: long, lanky, straight legs with a lot of rotation in the hips. Beautifully arched feet,” Virkus said. “And I was like, ‘What’s your name, little girl?’ ”
Reichlen gave her nickname, Tess, barely above a whisper. She was shy; the school’s founder, Thomas Russell, remembers that for years he had to nag her to look up, rather than down at the floor. But coiled inside that quiet slip of a girl was a hunger for challenge that fueled her rapid mastery of the trickiest aspects of ballet technique. Once the Clifton native hit her teens, Reichlen’s teachers discovered she could perfect any turn and nail any balance they asked of her.
That granite technique powered Reichlen’s rise from Centreville High School through the New York City Ballet ranks, starting as an apprentice at 16 and becoming a corps de ballet member a year later. At 27, she is a singularly versatile principal dancer, recognizable for her height — at just under 5-foot-10, she’s Amazonian by ballerina standards — and her Ivory Soap-girl wholesomeness. She could be your sister or the volleyball coach.
It all seemed to come so easily to her — the athlete’s speed, the voracious jump, that confidence mixed with a little sass. Reichlen conquered one devilish role after the other; she’s especially known as the high-kicking, alpha-Rockette soloist in the “Rubies” section of Balanchine’s “Jewels,” and for her dominatrix Siren in “Prodigal Son.” She gained a reputation as a Balanchine ballerina for a new age, neither seductive nor aloof but fresh and uncomplicated.
Then, a few years ago, Reichlen hit a wall. Her “obsession” with technique, as Reichlen calls it, almost choked the life out of her dancing.
“I was really close to stopping ballet,” Reichlen said.
She spoke recently via Skype from Amsterdam. Wearing her long blond hair loose, her face a pale oval but for the bright blue of her eyes, Reichlen could have been any college kid — which is exactly who she is in the rare moments when she’s not dancing. Taking one or two courses a semester, she is working toward a biology degree from Barnard College.
Reichlen was in the Netherlands with her boyfriend, New York City Ballet dancer Justin Peck, to rehearse a duet Peck had choreographed for her and a member of the Dutch National Ballet. After that, she was headed to St. Petersburg to squeeze in a performance of “Prodigal Son” with the Mariinsky Ballet Company, just before traveling here for the New York City Ballet’s series at the Kennedy Center Opera House, Tuesday through April 8.